Coffee heat rising

I Hate Blackboard

Lenten thanks, Day 3

I think God for the glorious experience of the All Saints choir and the generosity of its director in allowing me to join and sing along with it. The spectacular voices of the chamber choir, the privilege of being near its extraordinarily talented  members, the fellowship of good friends, and the wonder of learning about music and voice are beyond description.

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If anyone ever asks you to teach an online course using Blackboard’s course management software, RUN! Run away as fast as you can!!! If your chair or dean informs you that your courses will be converted via Blackboard to online or hybrid format, willy-nilly, by way of getting with the current money-grasping trend in higher education, fill out the application for that job at Walmart.

Do not do, my friends, what I have done
In the House of the Sinking Sun…

Whatever you try to do in Blackboard, Blackboard will scotch you, block you, screw you, deconstruct you, make you look like a raving fool. Whom the Blackboard gods would destroy, they first make mad.

Last night I worked yet again to midnight, undoing the latest devastation Blackboard’s peculiarities have inflicted on my online course. Yesterday morning it was up and back to work at 4:00 a.m.; this morning I slept to 6:00 because I doped myself with not one but two Benadryl after I stumbled away from the computer along about 12:15 a.m.

Running up to this course, I spent hours and hours and…nay, not hours: days, yea, days and days and days morphing into weeks preparing illustrated online lectures in a function Blackboard calls “Voice Presentation.” At the end of all that work, what I ended up with was not optimal—far from it!—but at least it was sort of OK. It wasn’t the digitally recorded PowerPoint presentations I’d made—Blackboard won’t hold even a small PowerPoint, much less one with fifteen or twenty slides and a few spoken words explaining them, even though the user manual indicates it will. It apparently doesn’t have enough memory. WhatEVER.

After I’d made these elegant PowerPoint shows, at great expenditure of time and effort, and then learned they could not be uploaded, I had to extract each and every accursed JPEG; save every one of them separately to disk; upload them, one by interminable one, into Blackboard’s faux blog function; and then link the faux blog posts to Blackboard’s Voice Presentation. This took unimaginable numbers of hours, and it entailed my having to record, re-record, re-re-record, and re-re-re-record my 15-minute spiels ad nauseum.

I am so flicking sick of repeating those damn lecturoids I could throw up. But now I get to do them ALL. OVER. AGAIN.

Duplicating the fall course caused Blackboard to kill all the faux blog-to-Voice Presentation links, every bloody one of them. Actually, instead of bringing the links over to the copied faux blogs, it kept the links to the faux blogs from the fall semester’s Blackboard shell. Naturally, the spring students don’t have access to last fall’s course. So when they try to enter the Voice Presentation, they’re informed that they can’t access the course material.

This quirk, of course, was not visible to me at the time I copied over the new course; because I have admin access to all my old courses, the VP’s worked just fine for me. Not until the eve of the first project’s due date did I start getting frantic e-mails…I can’t get in! Blackboard’s Help Desk can’t figure out the problem. Blackboard’s Help Desk can’t help me. Blackboard’s Help Desk says you have to change all the links.

After some thrashing around, I finally figure out—almost by accident—what is causing the problem. I go into the Voice Presentation to try to move the links (about a dozen of them…) to the faux blogs that were copied into the current semester’s BB course. But…oh yes, BUT…in the transition, Blackboard has disappeared that function! Nowhere can I find an option to set the URL. It is GONE.

For Christ’s sake.

Undaunted, I dream up a workaround: Record the lecturoid on a Voice Board, which will give me 20 minutes of recording time. This requires me to pull up the blog with its images on my laptop and then explain the images into the desktop’s microphone while scrolling through them on the laptop.

Better yet (hang onto your hats, fellow eddycators), accessing the resulting pushmi-pullyu requires the students to open two browser tabs, sign into Blackboard in both tabs, run the Voice Board lecturoid in one tab, and, in the other tab, follow along in the blogoid, manually scrolling down the page.

Gaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!

Go ahead. YOU try to explain this process to members of a student body whose constituents believe France is our  mortal enemy, Wisconsin is a Rocky Mountain state, Catholics are not Christians, and the word episcopal is pronounced ep-is-COP-al.

Blackboard has two fundamental problems.

First, it’s bloatware. It’s chuckablock full of features that no one uses and that, after a little experience with Blackboard, no one in their right mind would even think of trying to use. This bloatware costs your school money while it occupies server space.

Second, it is hideously difficult to use because its functions are unlike those in any other program and because it is utterly unintuitive. In some cases, to do the same action in more than one part of the program requires you to engage a different set of commands. So, not only are these commands unlike anything you run into in, say, Microsoft or Apple programs, they’re unlike what you run into within the program itself. To learn to use the program takes a long time, a lot of effort and study. Schools that subscribe to it have to provide endless hours of seminars and workshops to train faculty in it, and then….

Yes. And THEN. When you finally have it almost mastered, Blackboard “upgrades” and changes the whole god da^^ned thing around!

Now you get to start all over again. Even experienced users have to start almost from zero and relearn it from the ground up. And what did you get with the so-called upgrade? More bells and whistles that you would never use even if you thought they wouldn’t screw you up. Which is to say more bloatware!

If I’d had any clue I would be wasting so many unpaid hours and subjected to such outrageous levels of frustration, I would never have agreed to put this course online. Yes, teaching online obviates your having to drive out to campus and stand in front of a section for three hours each week. But a full semester’s 48 hours of face time is as nothing compared to the uncountable number of hours I’ve wasted, and continue to waste, on Blackboard.


THE New Year’s Resolution: Manage Time for Better Health

That’s it. This year I have one goal and only one goal: find a way to manage my time so as to get most or all of my work done and engineer several hours every day for exercise and healthy relaxation.

I’ve suspected for quite a while that one reason the belly has been a mess is the 12 to 17 hours a day I sit in front of a computer screen, seven days a week. As I sit here coping with the cascades of chores that each and every action spawns—and following my whim across the hills and dales of the Internet—the house gets dirtier and dirtier, the dog grows shaggy and shabby, the yard goes feral, and, on days that I don’t have to go out the door, I neglect even to take a shower or brush my teeth.

When M’hijito came over to spend the afternoon and evening on Christmas Eve, I had to get up and race around the minute my feet hit the ground. Along about 6:30, the dog threw up all over the bed and me—merry Christmas! So first crack off the bat, it was haul all the bedding out to the washer, scrub the barf off myself, clean the floor, and treat the sickly dog.

Since I’d managed to get a fair amount of housework done the previous day, the time between dawn and my son’s arrival was occupied with preparing the elaborate Mayan bean recipe I planned to take to the Christmas Eve choir potluck, which takes place between the 8:30 service and the midnight service, and then with a little light cleaning and dinner prep. This was all surprisingly relaxing, and for the first time in God only knows how long, my stomach didn’t hurt.

That confirmed my suspicion: getting off my duff, walking away from the computer early in the day and not going back to it has serious curative powers. The kind of work I do is endlessly frustrating, the sort of niggling little tasks that seem to beget scores of new tasks before a job can get done. Christmas Eve, for example, I sat down to do one little chore associated with next semester’s courses: enter in Google Calendar the dates and times I’d devote to grading next semester’s student papers. Ought to take about ten minutes, right? An hour and a half later I was still at it.

Fooling with a computer is like eating Crackerjacks. You can’t just do one thing. You start on task A and then discover that you need to do task B before you can complete task A, but task B leads to task C, which you know you’d better do right now or else you’re going to forget it, but task C entails task D, which you now have to do to make task C work and then you’re reminded you did forget task E so you’d better do that while you’re at it and…before you know it, three hours have passed, a beautiful afternoon is gone, you haven’t brushed your teeth or fed the dog or even pulled on a pair of bluejeans, and you’re running late for whatever you’re supposed to be doing in the real world. Like Crackerjacks, it’s bad for your teeth.

To say nothing of bad for your health and bad for your sanity. This has got to stop.

The question is, HOW? Except for about six hours a week spent standing in front of a classroom, almost all my work is done online. So I don’t do anything unless I sit down in front of a computer, and because of the self-replicating effect of computer tasks, the minute I do sit down in front of a computer, I’m trapped like a bug in flypaper.

It seems to me the solutions fall into two categories: drastic and not-so-drastic.

Drastic:

a. Quit blogging. I love to write and it’s gratifying to know that somewhere out there someone wants to read my maunderings. But it’s obscenely time-consuming, and the sense that you’re in some sort of competition for page rank, Alexa rankings, traffic, ad revenues, and whatnot is absurd and destructive.

b. Take my classes completely offline. Abandon the online magazine writing course and stick with freshman comp. Junk the monstrously time-consuming, brain-blasting, hair-ripping Blackboard and do everything on paper. Don’t let students anywhere near a computer, and refuse to answer e-mail from the little darlings.

Not-so-drastic:

a. Never turn on the computer until after the dog is fed, the human is washed and fed, the house is picked up, and the human and the dog get at least an hour of exercise. In personal finance terms, this would be like paying yourself first—retrieving some healthy savings out of your budget before you start spending.

b. Set an alarm clock to go off after about two hours of crack-of-dawn work. At that point, stop working, get up and get going. If a blog post doesn’t go up in the morning, it just doesn’t go up.

c. Schedule blocks of time to do specific tasks.

We know that scheduling blocks of time for specific tasks works only marginally. If I’m not done with something by the end of its scheduled period, I’ll keep on working, consuming the planned free time with…yes, more bug-in-the-flypaper time! We know that if I finish a task before a block of time ends, it’s far more likely that I’ll start Stumbling or pick up some other computer-oriented project than that I’ll get up and clean house, clean me, or go out for some fresh air. So that’s off the list right now.

I suspect the alarm clock ruse will have the same effect: I’ll just turn the nuisance off and continue with whatever I’m doing.

The idea of resisting the computer until healthier things are done has its blandishments. The problem there is that it will cut into the number of hours left to plow through the daily 12 or 14 hours of work. This will lead to more impossibly late hours, which grows tedious. By 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., I’m so sick of working I start to hate the work itself.

I’m not real thrilled with the idea of junking Funny about Money. But it has to be said: that would return two or three hours a day to my life. Often I ask  myself what else I’d be doing. But the answer is obvious: cleaning the Funny Farm, taking care of the garden and pool (which as we scribble needs to be backwashed), bicycling around the neighborhood, walking the dog, or climbing a mountain.

As for taking all my classes offline…hmmmm….  Grading papers electronically hugely speeds that dreary task; when I first started using Word’s “track changes” and “comments” functions, I found it took about 30% less time to read a set of papers online than it does to grade them by hand. At the time, however, my institution used FirstClass, a much simpler course management program than the bloatware that is Blackboard, and at one point I even built my own website in MS FrontPage and had students submit papers by e-mail. Blackboard should be renamed Blackhole, because that’s what it is: a black hole for instructor time. It vacuums up hours like a warp in the space-time continuum.

This semester instead of having the freshmen do most of their work online, I sent every one of their learning assignments over to the copy center and had them printed out as a gigantic course packet—59 pages, not counting the 12-page syllabus and the three-page calendar. Instead of having them do all that busywork…uhm, all those learning experiences through Blackboard, which requires me to look at the junk and pay students to do it in the currency of the classroom (grades), I’m going to make them do this stuff in the classroom and then go over it in class, forcing them to LOOK at it and discuss  it. This will occupy a great deal of otherwise vacant class time and make them look twice at the exercises (when under normal circumstances they glance at the stuff once, through glazed eyes).

Instead of grading the stuff, I’m going to collect exercises at random, so they never know when they may or may not get a score for what they do in class. Raw fear should keep a few of them awake. And as the University of Phoenix does, I’m going to tell them that the exercises are there to help them succeed in the course, and that those who do the exercises will perform better on the (much more heavily!) graded assignments. This strategy cuts the number of columns in my grade book from 21 to 11. So that may be useful.

How to engineer this for a course that’s completely online, I don’t know. Because my tenured colleague, whose course this really is, wanted me to assign four full-length magazine articles instead of the two plus exploratory projects I’d built into the eight-week course, I dropped the drafting and peer reviewing stages, the cumulative daily brainstorming exercise, and the in-depth market research project. However, having discovered that like most beginning freelance writers these folks are stunningly stupid about crafting an article to fit a market, I had to build and include a market research assignment for each article. This left, despite the cuts, exactly the same number of assignments to grade as last semester: 15.

The solution to that, obviously, is to drop the online course. This would cut the total number of papers to grade from 36 to 31; the trade-off would be an extra three hours a week in class, plus commute time. Probably not worth it.

What to do?

Overall, I think the most conservative and reasonable strategy to try first is staying away from the computer until a few hours of living a life get done.

This will mandate that on some days, blog posts will not happen, or they won’t happen until late evening. But that may be a good thing: more readers seem to see and comment on posts that sit online for a couple of days. While content may still be king, when you’re cranking a post or more a day, you may actually be losing your readers in a fog of copy.

If that doesn’t work, then I’ll have to make a major change in the way things happen around here.

Image:
J. C. Leyndecker,
Saturday Evening Post covers. Public domain. Layout found at Lines and Colors.
Father Time with Baby New Year. Illustration from Frolic & Fun, 1897. Believed to be in the public domain.

Ohhhhh M. G.!

Stop the world! I wanna get off!!

If Murphy’s Law can have global warming, that’s what we’ve got here.

First day of class. All my coursework is neatly online. It has, some of you may recall, taken weeks of 16-hour days to mount this stuff on BlackBoard, the courseware that ate Philadelphia.

Today I needed my students to access the site, in class, to download materials, to upload short in-class essays… Wednesday they have two assignments due in this system.

You see where we’re going here… OF COURSE the goddamned BlackBoard system is DOWN! It’s having a FRENZY OF INSTABILITY.

Is it my sweet little college that’s brought this on? Hell, no. It’s the vendor. BlackBoard. Blackboard Freaking Inc. Tina forwarded a memo from the university’s IT people saying they expect it to be nonfunctional for a week or more. GDU is activating its emergency backup system; meanwhile, it’s telling faculty to post materials somewhere else, Google Docs or wherever the hell they can figure out to get online.

Luckily, I knew this was going to happen.

You develop an instinct for these things, after you’ve worked with BlackBoard long enough. So I created a WordPress.com site as my own fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants backup. It’s just a blog and its interactivity is limited to comments. But at least it can hold the most crucial course material, for the nonce, and I can communicate with the little things. The papers they’re doing next week will just have to be printed out. Just what I needed…to have to touch paper. The dratted stuff has acid in it, you know. Burns your fingers.

Ah, but that wasn’t all.

No. Not all. This morning the iMac’s hard drive crashed, once and for all. Down and out. Blue Screen of Death, accompanied by weird Knock of Death. That will be $260, thank you, and say goodbye to all your programs and data.

Luckily, I knew this was going to happen.

One could do without it happening on the first day of class. But thank goodness everything of any import was backed up to an external hard drive, except for a small project I finished about 11:00 last night. Not pleased about having to do that four hours of work over, but it’s a heckuva lot better than having to do four months’ worth of work over.

And boy, am I glad I sprang for the extra coins to get the MacBook! The iMac got cloned onto this handy laptop computer, and so life goes on, with few interruptions. The 87 gerjillion passwords the iMac had memorized have to be looked up and entered into this unit. But otherwise, the system is much the same. And the repair dudes should be able to clone the MacBook back onto the new iMac hard drive.

All that notwithstanding, it’s been one hellish day.

Image: Edvard Munch, The Scream. Public Domain